They're not receiving much credit for it in the media, but farm organizations scored a major victory when the Doha Development Round negotiations collapsed in Geneva last month.
In other years and other scenarios, farm groups might have walked away from the talks, muttering how U.S. trade officials had done it to them again by agreeing to proposals from the European Union or Japan or other WTO members just to get an agreement.
That didn't happen this time largely because the “Gang of 11” major farm organizations told the Bush administration they wouldn't stand for any more reductions in farm support that weren't already on the table in Geneva.
It wasn't that administration officials weren't willing. During the G-8 Summit that preceded the last negotiating session, President Bush hinted the United States was prepared to be more “flexible” to help negotiators reach an agreement. (Read that more reductions in farm subsidies.)
But, in meetings with U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, the Gang of 11 demanded that the administration not give any more ground unless the EU and the G-20 developing countries gave significantly more market access.
That didn't happen, and U.S. negotiators were left with no alternative but to walk away, demonstrating once again the importance of farm organizations staying united. But some leaders are concerned about how fragile the alliance might be.
Most commercial farmers have told USDA, the Senate and House ag committees and anyone else who would listen they would prefer to keep the current law. Some farm groups, meanwhile, say, “yes, that's true, but we have a few little changes….”
Some of those, such as increasing direct payments to farmers to try to get around the WTO's amber box ceiling, raise payment limit issues for cotton and rice producers. Others, such as the revenue assurance proposal being pushed by corn and soybean groups, would overhaul the current programs and eliminate counter-cyclical payments.
Some organizations are also facing internal conflicts that could be problematic in the farm bill debate. The merchant and textile segments of the National Cotton Council, an organization that prides itself on unified positions, may balk at giving farmers a “blank check” by simply extending the current farm bill.
The U.S. textile industry, which is barely hanging on by its teeth by most accounts, may also be less than pleased with the role of farm groups in the collapse of the WTO negotiations. Textile industry representatives were looking for help on safeguard provisions from a new Doha agreement.
One farm group leader recently told his members to be on the lookout for a “major press event,” in which the American Farm Bureau Federation will formally call for extending the current farm bill for one year.
“A one-year extension would not be as tension-producing as something longer,” he said. And it would give agriculture more time to resolve its differences before Congress starts writing a new law.